EU flights have started to avoid Belarusian airspace
Artillery Row

Is Belarus entitled to sovereignty?

In the air or on the ground

You can probably appreciate the terror he felt, even more than the fear experienced by those who thought they were in the midst of a mid-air attack by terrorists. 

Roman Protasevich, a Belarusian activist and journalist who runs a popular opposition Telegram channel, boarded a cheap flight from Athens to Vilnius on Sunday. He and the rest of the passengers did not reach their intended destination. 

Protasevich was arrested in the past for his part in protests in Belarus, and was later accused by Belarusian authorities of organising others — and of fighting with the pro-Ukrainian Azov Battalion in the country’s strange, seven-year-long quasi war with Russia and its proxies in the east of Ukraine.

Belarus is a state without the rule of law, governed without laws, so the exact nature of Protasevich’s alleged crimes remain usefully ambiguous. That he is considered a terrorist by the state is clear. That the state wants to execute him, ditto.

Back to the aircraft. Protasevich had noticed a few “dodgy” guys tailing him in Athens. Some of them took his picture at the airport. According to the CEO of Ryanair, KGB men boarded the aircraft. They may have started a ruckus onboard. Either way, half an hour after the aircraft entered Belarusian airspace, its pilot was told by the Belarusian air traffic controllers that they had received a bomb threat – something apparently sent to several airports.

After notifying the pilots, Belarus demanded that the plane set down in Minsk rather than travelling on to Lithuania. It sent up a MiG fighter to make the demand more pressing. 

You know the rest: the aircraft was diverted.  Protasevich told his fellow passengers that because he faced execution, he was as good as dead when they landed. Then he and his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, were bundled off the plane and into state custody, where the country’s exiled opposition leader says there is a high chance they are already being tortured for information. 

The bomb threat was purportedly from Hamas, by the way. Hamas has denied involvementno bomb was ever found.

What you may not know is that the email claiming to deliver the bomb threat was sent 24 minutes after the plane was first contacted by authorities and told to go to ground in Minsk. The disconnect in time was confirmed by the email provider, Proton Mail. 

According to Newlines: the heading of the message was an unsubtleAllahu Akbar’. The sender was [email protected]. “We, Hamas soldiers”, the message said, “demand that Israel cease fire in the Gaza Strip. We demand that the European Union abandon its support for Israel in this war. … A bomb has been planted onto this aircraft. If you don’t meet our demands the bomb will explode on May 23 over Vilnius.”

The bomb plot makes things considerably worse than merely sinister. It means that in addition to diverting a civilian aircraft, countermanding freedom of the air, and arresting on dubious charges an opposition figure, the Belarusian authorities have also orchestrated a false-flag terrorist attack in open view. (The purpose of terrorism being terror rather than destruction per se, there needn’t have been a bomb for it to qualify.)

Much has been huffed and puffed in Europe about this. European leaders have made use of their talent for condemnation. It’s an outrage. It’s an assault on the union. It’s an act of war. 

There is a case to be made for all of these.

But what Europe, and NATO, appear not to have done — at least yet — is matched their actions to their verbose reactions.

The European Union has indicated that it will announce new sanctions on Belarus — notably its primary industries. These sound impressive and may be trailed in such a way to make them look flashy.  However, any real punishment against the dictatorship would go far further than that. It would involve living up to all the rhetoric which declares a hijacking like this to be an unpardonable, unprecedented crime. 

I have heard, from more than one stolid Englishman, that either Belarus is entitled to do whatever it pleases within its airspace

If this is state-sanctioned terror, it justifies looking again at the claimed legitimacy of the Belarusian government. if this is an act of war, it justifies a war footing. Work must also be done to convince people of a couple of distinct inclinations that this is in fact an event of note. 

Conspiratorial types have accused the United States of doing the same thing in its bid to locate Edward Snowden in 2014. Superior journalists have noted that when Iran illegitimately forced the landing of an aircraft to arrest Abdolmalek Rigi, the leader of a militant organisation in Balochistan, Britain in effect said “good work, Iran’. Rigi was executed, as it happens.

I have also heard, from more than one stolid Englishman, that either Belarus is entitled to do whatever it pleases within its airspace or that, separately, if a pro-Western country like Israel (presumably because they “don’t mess about’) had used their tradecraft to achieve a similar result, the self-same Englishmen would applaud the graft.

These views are all separately illegitimate – fake bomb threats are bomb threats; the hunt for Snowden never got quite so violent as this; and freedom of the air means that countries whose airspaces appear between two airports cannot force down craft, in which with few exceptions other countries’ laws apply in flight, in order to satisfy domestic convictions in absentia.

With a few sanctions and some hot language of condemnation, European nations don’t make these points as clearly and with enough force as the moment requires.

​One or two measures seem clever – like opening up the EU’s labour market to Belarusians, precipitating a gargantuan brain drain which would make the survival of Belarus’ economy either doubtful or dependent on European remittances. We will see if they are adopted. 

In September last year, I wrote worriedly for this magazine of the protests then picking up steam in Belarus. It takes rather a lot to detach dictators which cling to power like barnacles cling to hulls. Like barnacles, as this week shows, dictators pose problems for other peoples’ craft.

If this really is an outrage, an act of terror or war, perhaps it’s time to consider more dramatic ways to prise this particular barnacle — as aggressively as needed — from its filth-encrusted place on the side of the ship.

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